Cristiano Ronaldo and the Juventus old guard ready for Serie A title battle against AC Milan young guns

Portuguese veteran remains key man for champions who take on Piolo's table-toppers on Wednesday

A month from now, Cristiano Ronaldo will celebrate his 36th birthday. All things being equal, it will be a normal practice day at Juventus: Gigi Buffon, a birthday boy for the 43rd time a week earlier, will be reaching for Ronaldo drives at shooting practice. Giorgio Chiellini, 36, and Leonardo Bonucci, 33, will be marking Ronaldo at set-piece drills,

If the exploratory transfer talks initiated this week come to fruition, Fabio Quagliarella, 38 this month, might also be comparing spectacular finishes with Ronaldo. Juve, in search of an extra punch up front, are understood to have sounded out Quagliarella, of Sampdoria and formerly of the Old Lady, about a surprise move in the winter window.

Experience has always been a cornerstone of excellence at Juventus, though Juve shifted radically from that principal last August in appointing a novice manager, Andrea Pirlo, to oversee the defence of their Serie A title, his trust in senior players is a given.

Ronaldo above all. Half of all the league goals scored by Juventus players this season have come from the peerless Portuguese. “We’ve worked on making sure he is able to be clinical in the final 30 metres, and not have him tire himself out winning the ball back,” said Pirlo on Tuesday, “and he’s the match-winner he has always been.”

But when Ronaldo has been missing, serving quarantine or given a rest, points have been dropped, notably against Crotone, Verona and Benevento, fixtures the champions would budget on winning. The cost of those draws, and the 3-0 loss against Fiorentina in late December, looks heavy as Juve, fifth in the table, travel to AC Milan tonight.

It is champions against league-leaders. The gap between them stands at 10 points. Yes, Juventus have played one match fewer, but as that fixture is the postponed hosting of Napoli it is not a three points Juve dare bank on. Lose this one, and the challenge of winning a 10th successive scudetto will start to look a very tall order.

Tot up the combined years of the spine of their squad, and chasing a deficit of 13 points in a season of unforgiving scheduling, makes the task seem still more daunting.

Then compare the veterans of Juve with the dashing young braves of Serie A’s pacesetters, and the enduring rivalry of Italy’s two most decorated clubs is easily portrayed as a battle of generations. Milan currently have the youngest squad, on average, of any in a major European league this season.

Gallery: Benevento 0 AC Milan 2

That despite the presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now in his 40th year, and a transformational figure in the 12 months since he returned to Italian football.

Ibrahimovic, like Ronaldo, is his team’s highest scorer in the league so far, but his 10 goals served to lift Milan to the top of the table. Other, younger players have consolidated the lead. In November, the Swede was obliged to schedule a two-month recuperation for muscle injuries. He aims to return next week.

In short, worldly Juve seem to need their lodestar, Ronaldo, more than a wet-behind-the-ears Milan depend on Zlatan – although the Milan manager Stefano Piolo, speaks of how even a non-playing Ibrahimovic is an important 12th man, spreading belief among young footballers who do not have his habit of chasing down titles again and again.

Ibrahimovic won his first league, with Ajax, in 2002, start of a surreal run in which every club he played for finished top of their championship in 13 of 15 consecutive years, from Ajax, to Juventus, to Inter Milan, to Barcelona, to Milan, to Paris Saint-Germain. His Milan title was won a decade ago, when a number of his current team-mates were not yet even in secondary school.

Milan, unbeaten, have won seven of their nine games without him, and take on Juventus with Ante Rebic, the Croatian assuming leadership of the attack in Ibrahimovic’s absence, and Rafael Leao, Ronaldo’s 21-year-old Portuguese compatriot, in good form up front.

Pirlo, who won two Champions League titles and two scudetti in ten years as a Milan player, noted their impact, and that his Juventus will be facing “a team in great shape physically and mentally. So I want to see a Juventus confident of our strengths and ready to take control.”

Would defeat end Juve’s dream of a 10th successive title? “One match at this stage is not decisive,” Pirlo replied, “but we have to improve our position in the table, and Milan have had the best campaign so far. That makes them the team to beat.”

Published: January 6, 2021 07:05 AM

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